All in a Good Day’s Bicycling

March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments

adventuresofagirlcalledbicycle-e1552680598146.jpgMy daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Picture Book of the Year

November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

My daughter fibs. I realize that sounds harsh, like what kind of parent says that about her child? Shouldn’t I soften my words and say that she only pretends or exaggerates or bends the truth, because even though she’s only eight, she’s old enough to realize that sometimes the world looks better in our minds than it does in reality? Indeed, this is true. Still, she fibs. « Read the rest of this entry »

2017 Gift Guide (No. 3): For the Underdog…well, Horse

December 5, 2017 § 2 Comments

These days, it’s rare that my son and daughter will gravitate towards the same picture book. Not because they don’t still enjoy picture books. Even though they read chapter books on their own—even though we’re always reading a chapter book (or two or three) together—both of my kids still adore picture books. I hope to nurture this love by leaving ever-changing baskets of picture books around the house. Long after children are reading chapter books, there is still so much to be gained from picture books, not the least of which is an introduction to a range of subjects alongside gorgeously vibrant, innovative art.

But as much as they love a good picture book, my kids are not often enamored with the same book. Which might be why the exceptions especially thrill me. This is partly why I’ve saved Patrick McCormick and Iacopo Bruno’s Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero (Ages 6-12) for my Gift Guide. If you’re looking for a book that hits both ends of the spectrum, this is it. « Read the rest of this entry »

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.” « Read the rest of this entry »

2015 Gift Guide (No. 3): Chapter Books for the Courage Seeker

December 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

Best Middle-Grade Chapter Books of 2015As a child who loved reading all sorts of books, the characters that stayed with me long after I finished the final page were not the knights in shining armor or the warrior princesses. They were everyday children—characters who looked or felt or went to school like me—whose strength and courage were greatly tested by circumstances beyond their control. These children got dealt a bad hand; and yet, they managed to come through with grace and humor, with an increased sensitivity to others, and with a wealth of self-knowledge. Perhaps it is through reading stories about loss, disability, bullying, or poverty that we can create our own personal roadmap to peace, compassion, and joy.

Without further ado, I present my three favorite middle-grade chapter books of the year for the 9-14 year-old set. (Mind you, these are in addition to Echo and Circus Mirandus, which I wrote about over the summer here and which are every bit as awesome as the ones below). These three novels are vastly different from one another, both in subject and in narrative voice—and yet all of them sing with the beauty of the human spirit. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 3): For the Rebel Princess (Ages 5-8)

December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen PhamFive years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!

Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.

What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet.

“I’ve decided to ask Santa for a real Queen Elsa dress,” she announced the other night. “Oh yeah?” I said (trying not to wince too obviously). “And what will you do with an Elsa dress?”

“I will sing and dance around. Also, I will fight bad guys.”

Ok then.

For a long time, rebel princesses have popped up in children’s picture books (Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess is the most well known, although there are fun new additions, like Dangerously Ever After). Additionally, the teen market is ripe with re-imagined fairytale heroines (Robin McKinley’s Beauty tops my list). Now, at long last, it would appear that these princess rebels are making their way into early-reader literature, a category which as a whole is getting a much-needed makeover in quality and sophistication (you haven’t forgotten Dory Fantasmagory, have you?).

Authors Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black (Ages 5-8), a short chapter book for newly independent readers (and an equally terrific read-aloud), will be hard for any child (or parent) to resist. It’s everything a princess-and-superhero-loving girl could want: tulle and cape; dainty tea parties and wild romps in the forest; royalty and monsters. And the best part? Every single one of the 90 pages features a full-color illustration (this never happens in chapter books!) by the energetic LeUyen Pham. Oh, and did I mention that the book’s cover sports metallic ink?

When we first meet Princess Magnolia, she is decked out in a pink gown and glass slippers, perfectly upholding civility, while hosting the nosy, big-haired Duchess Wigtower over hot chocolate and scones.

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

But, we quickly learn, Princess Magnolia has a secret identity. For starters, she has a Monster Alarm embedded in the gemstone of her ring, designed to go off when monster mayhem is afloat. As we watch, Princess Magnolia politely excuses herself from the unsuspecting duchess, ducks into a broom closet, and trades her frilly pink ensemble for a black suit, black tights, and black cape (the tiara stays). Here comes my daughter’s favorite part: the Princess in Black then slides out of the castle through a secret chute and high jumps over the castle wall.

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

Once atop her unicorn-turned-masked-black stallion, PIB gallops off to fight crime (or “bad guys,” as my Emily would say).

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

When asking nicely doesn’t do the trick, the Princess in Black unleashes the perfect combination of “sparkle slams,” “princess pounces,” and “twinkle twinkle little smashes” to stop a hungry blue monster from devouring a trio of goats. We’re talking princess-style ninjitsu!

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

The Princess in Black blends action, grace, and humor. And the best news? There are hints about possible sequels! Duff the Goat Boy, thus far an innocent bystander, is the only one to suspect an uncanny likeness between the Princess in Black and Princess Magnolia. Do we hear rumblings of a future sidekick for the PIB?

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen Pham

I still worry about the too-skinny, high-heel-wearing princesses (rebels or not) that grace contemporary movie screens and literature. But I also enjoy watching how comfortably my daughter seems to reside in the space between dichotomies of “female” and “male,” “princess” and “rebel.” This generation of girls will forge their own path in the world—and we had better get out of their way.

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All opinions are my own. Review copy provided by Candlewick publishing. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

What Was Santa Like as a Kid? (& My Favorite Christmas Books of 2013)

December 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

"An Otis Christmas" by Loren LongWith every holiday season, there is a kind of magic in rediscovering old friends, old traditions, old stories. I have only to see the ecstasy on my children’s faces as we unpack our box of Christmas books each December to remember why I go through the trouble of packing them away in January, as opposed to stuffing them into our already stuffed bookshelves. As a parent, it’s magical for me as well: last night my eldest left us at the dinner table, voluntarily bathed himself, got into his PJs, brushed his teeth, and called downstairs, “I’m ready 20 minutes early so I can get some extra Christmas stories!” No wonder they call it the most wonderful time of the year.

Just because we only read them for one month a year doesn’t mean I can resist the temptation to add to our collection every single year (there are worse addictions, I’ve assured my husband). Last year was Alison Jay’s exquisite Christmastime, where clues of Christmas carols are embedded into a seek-and-find masterpiece. Previous years’ favorites are mentioned here and here. This year’s acquisitions include two new picture books, utterly different in style, but forever entwined in my mind, since my kids and I had the pleasure of meeting both author/illustrators at Hooray for Books (our fabulous independent bookstore) a few weeks ago.

I have twice now (here and here) sung the praises of Loren Long’s books about Otis, the kind tractor who bravely saves the day time and time again on his farm. An Otis Christmas (Ages 3-7) is every bit as endearing as its predecessors, although it has unique bragging rights to a shiny red horn, a newborn foal, and just the subtlest visual parallel to the manger of the First Christmas.

Little SantaThen there’s Jon Agee’s Little Santa (Ages 3-7), which in contrast to the sweeping drama of Otis, paints a quirky story of Santa’s early days as a red onesie-sporting toddler—and the sequence of events involving a sleigh, a flying reindeer, and an elf partnership, which led to him becoming the Santa Claus we know today. In Agee’s characteristically droll humor, we are introduced to Santa’s parents and siblings (who are bent on trading in their life on the North Pole for the sunny beaches of Florida), as well as Santa’s early penchant for sliding down chimneys (where other children might, say, slide down a slide). In a word, awesome.

I’ll admit that, as many times as I’ve attended author events in my professional life, I have never thought to drag my kids along (because “dragging” is exactly what I thought it would feel like to take them down to a bookstore at suppertime on a school night while my husband was out of town). Well, I am here to tell you that you must start doing this, especially with your elementary children. Many of these author/illustrators don’t simply read their books aloud to the audience: they actually draw them right before kids’ eyes. My six year old knows that an author is someone who writes the words to a story, that an illustrator draws the pictures, and that some people do both; but to most kids (and I’m sure to many adults), the entire book-making process feels largely intimidating, inaccessible. These glossy, perfectly colorized illustrations, handsomely bound between hard covers with evenly spaced text around them, feel like something reserved for “real artists” (“I’ll never be a real artist!” I used to cry to my parents every time I couldn’t make my drawings look “perfect”).

So here we are at this event with Loren Long and Jon Agee, and my tentative, watchful JP, initially taking a seat in the last row, begins slowly, over the course of the evening, to make his way further and further towards the front, until he is sitting dead smack in front of the easel, on which Jon Agee is seemingly effortlessly and haphazardly sketching with a Sharpie the scenes and characters of his story as he voices aloud the narrative. When Agee doesn’t like something, he simply crosses it out. Or he draws on top of it. Sometimes all he draws is a single line (to indicate how high the snow was); sometimes he draws five or six scenes on the same page. No fuss, no special tools. Just sheet after sheet of flimsy newsprint and a blue (sometimes red) marker. Emily was amused simply to hear the stories. But for JP, watching these author/illustrators create before his eyes was positively Mind Blowing. And don’t think he didn’t come home and go straight for his markers.

Jon Agee madly sketching from "Little Santa" (wow, was he fast) with Loren Long making sound effects in the background. Such fun!

Jon Agee madly sketching from “Little Santa” (wow, was he fast) with Loren Long making sound effects in the background. Such fun!

Jon Agee gave us an additional gift that day. You see, as excited as I was for the publication of Little Santa, I also knew that, as a parent who gets easily tripped up in discussing the topic of Santa Claus, I would have to confront the inevitable question: “How does that guy know that this is what really happened when Santa was a kid?” Sure enough, a child asked this very question, and Agee’s reply was absolutely perfect: “I actually don’t know for sure. Before I wrote the book, I did a lot of research. I went out and talked to lots of people, many of them kids, and I asked each of them what Santa might have been like as a kid. And a lot of people said some pretty similar things, like that he must have always lived in the North Pole and liked to slide down chimneys. But, at the end of the day, this is just one story. One version of what might have happened. My version.” Christmas, after all, is as much a time for storytelling as it is a time for believing. At the end of the day, the stories we tell make the real magic.


Another 2013 Christmas Favorite
(and one I would buy if I didn’t already own a billion versions of this poem—one has to draw the line somewhere):
The Night Before Christmas, by Clement C. Moore, illus. Holly Hobbie

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